150 Years of WG at Trent Bridge

Even with today’s superstars, it is doubtful that any have a greater claim to cricketing fame than the 23-year-old Gloucestershire batsman who played his first County game at Trent Bridge 150 years ago this week.

He was William Gilbert Grace, a member of a great West Country cricket family who was destined to dominate the game and be part – perhaps the greatest part – of cricket’s first Golden Age.

On 21 August 1871, Grace was already a renowned batsman and recognised as an all rounder of rare talent. His presence in the Gloucestershire side – playing their first County Championship game at Trent Bridge – swelled the crowds.

The population of Nottinghamshire then was 320,000, less than half its current figure. So how many people were at Trent Bridge that day? There were 8,000 - their focus on one particular person.

The Nottinghamshire Guardian reported, “the great centre of attraction was, of course, Mr WG Grace, a champion batsman, who appeared for the first time on the Trent Bridge ground. The extraordinary scores of this gentleman during the season had raised the curiosity of the cricketing world to such an extent that his visit to Nottingham was sure to draw, and, in fact, it had been looked forward to with great interest for several weeks past. The result was a larger attendance of the public on the ground than we ever remember to have witnessed.

“All the factory hands for miles around struck work to see the game, and during lunch struggled across the ground to ‘bowl a few’ to the champion.” Grace was only 23 years old but was already captain of the county and the best batsman in England.

Grace was also an impressive bowler. He took 79 wickets that year; only four bowlers took more. His average was 17.

His fielding was also outstanding, his career figure of catches of 873 being higher than any other player in the history of cricket except for Frank Woolley. Grace's throw-in on the run was said to be one of the sights of the period.

In this 1871 match WG began as a wicket keeper, in place of the regular keeper, Bush, who was injured. Sporting Life recorded that he was fulfilling that position in the same thorough and excellent manner as he does any and every other in the field. Grace gave up the wicketkeeping gloves to Bush when he began to bowl.

Before the game, bets of 20 to one were made against WG getting a century – at the time, no one had scored a century at Trent Bridge in a county match.

He duly obliged in the second innings; WG joined his brother EM Grace when the score was 18-3, and Gloucestershire still needed 199 runs to avoid an innings defeat.  Grace made a century and went on to score 116; he scored more than half of the team’s total in each innings. He batted for about three hours without giving the slightest chance and hit 10 fours. WG’s match aggregate of 195 was then a record for Trent Bridge and a record for any team against Notts.

The crowd went home happy, having seen that century and yet Nottinghamshire still winning by 10 wickets.

This was the first of 30 appearances that WG made at Trent Bridge. Most of them for Gloucestershire against Nottinghamshire. And Grace’s final match, in 1899, was in the first Test staged at Trent Bridge.

One result of the match against Gloucestershire in 1871 was that Notts made a substantial profit that year, the grand figure of £347, with club funds increased to £641. A consequence was that it was agreed to take £400 from the funds to help build a pavilion (replaced 15 years later by the pavilion that stands today).

He made seven centuries at Trent Bridge, his highest being 182 made in 1881. The press thought it “extraordinary batting”. Grace was just a better batsman than anyone else.

In the 30 games at Trent Bridge, he scored, 26 percent of his team’s runs, and was top scorer in the innings on 21 occasions.

We shouldn't forget WG's bowling. He learned to bowl when it was still illegal to deliver the ball above shoulder height, so he was a round arm bowler. He had a five-for in eight matches at Trent Bridge. Twice he took 10 wickets in the match. His best was in 1877 when his four for 48 in the first innings was sufficient for Notts to follow on, and Grace then took six for 23 in second.

When it came to 1899, and the first time that Trent Bridge hosted a Test match, WG was 50 years old, and still captain of England – though he had filled out rather from the youth who starred in 1871.  By now Grace – known as WG, The Doctor and, by this time, as ‘The Grand Old Man’ – was famous wherever cricket was played and featured in advertisements, cartoons and even Music Hall songs.

Though, his powers were waning, the Evening Post reported that “an England eleven minus the most famous player the world has known would by many scarcely be deemed to be representative”.

The Post described, “a hearty cheer welcomed the leviathan figure of Dr Grace" and around 15,000 spectators were present. Australia were all out for 252, with WG having put himself on to bowl first change, although failing to take a wicket. When England went into bat, Grace opened the batting with CB Fry. The Nottingham Journal reported, “had [the doctor] been able to run faster his contribution, as well as the total, would have been larger.”

Fielding was also a problem. Simon Rae, one of Grace's biographers, wrote, “although his hands were as safe as ever, his elephantine bulk meant he was helpless if the ball did not come straight to him, and as other members of the team had to do his running for him, sections of the Nottingham crowd began to give him the bird…the truth was that he was a liability in the field.” However, he could still make an impression: in Australia's second innings, Hill was most brilliantly taken by Grace at point, low down with the right hand. It was described as “a truly magnificent catch".

Trent Bridge’s first Test match was also Grace's last. He was part of the selection committee for the next match and announced that he was standing down – possibly encouraged, at least in part, by the barracking of the Nottingham crowd.

Even though it was a disappointing end, WG had been a great character and his appearances provided many of the highlights of cricket at Trent Bridge across three decades.